Everyone has the same question. Why did one of the most talented young coaches in college football want to lead a Baylor program that has been rocked by a sexual assault scandal?

Matt Rhule, a 41-year-old pastor’s kid, says he felt called to Baylor. At the time he made the move, it was been widely reported that Rhule turned down an offer to Oregon to come to Waco. 

Rhule grew up in New York City. His family moved to State College, Pennsylvania, and Rhule attended Penn State University, where he became a walk-on linebacker. His coaching stops included the University of Buffalo, Western Carolina, and the New York Giants before he became head coach at Temple University in late 2012. When Rhule arrived in Waco late last year, he immediately started to rebuild a 2017 recruiting class that had been decimated after the firing of head coach Art Briles. 

Last Thursday, Rhule sat down with Texas Monthly to discuss a variety of topics, including his impressions of Waco, the changes he’ll make at Baylor, and his passion for ping pong. 

Matt Mosley: Are you worried you’ve taken a job at a basketball school?

Matt Rhule: I went to the basketball game last night! It was awesome. I felt a little uncomfortable because I’m not used to having seats that good. 

MM: Having grown up and worked in Pennsylvania, what’s your idea of good barbecue? 

MR: There’s a place that started in Rochester [New York] when I was coaching at Buffalo called Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and then they opened in Harlem and New Jersey. If I can get to a Dinosaur, I’ll go there. I also lived in North Carolina where there’s mustard vinegar and ketchup-based vinegar. I’m a hush puppy guy.

MM: What were your impressions of Waco from afar? 

MR: I had just finished school at Penn State [in 1997], and I was sending out letters to get a graduate assistant job. I got a call from Baylor’s new coach, Dave Roberts, and for one small week, I thought I was coming to Baylor. I had the Mazda B2000 truck ready to drive down there. But he called and said he’d given the job to someone else. 

My wife and I had watched Fixer Upper so much, that was my introduction. I had this image in my mind of what Waco was based upon that show. It was to the point that when we got the job, I went to work to tell the [Temple] team. My son was in school—and he’s 12—and we didn’t want him to hear it from anyone else. So my wife drove to my son’s school and picked him up early. She watched three to four episodes of Fixer Upper with him. And plus, he knew about RG3 [Baylor Heisman winner Robert Griffin III].

MM: I know [former Giants coach] Tom Coughlin has had a big impact on your career. Did you seek his guidance while deciding whether to take this job? 

MR: I talked to him maybe briefly before I took it. Talked to him right afterwards sort of for his approval. He’s a man that you’re gonna get straight-up honest truth from. I really appreciate that about him. When I got there with Tom, he’d won two Super Bowls. When we got there, my wife had this condition with her pregnancy. It’s the night before the opening game against the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football, and my wife gets sick. An hour before our Wednesday night meetings, I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I called Tom’s wife. She was like, “Matt, don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll call Tom and find him.” I got my wife to the hospital, and my mom met us there. I went to the meetings. Coach Coughlin walks in and says, “What are you doing here?” I told him my wife was fine, and I felt like I needed to get back. He said, “You know, Matt, we just won the Super Bowl last year, I think we’ll be okay without ya.”

I count my friends in my life by the people who are there when you need them. He will always be there when you need him. That’s something I try to emulate with every kid I’ve coached. I want them to say, ‘When I need him, he’s there for me.’

MM: I’m wondering if being a Penn State graduate and seeing the aftermath of that scandal helped prepare you for the aftermath of Baylor’s sexual assault scandal? 

MR: Number one, there’s [former Penn State coach] Bill O’Brien. To know he went to my alma mater in a time with significant uncertainty and in a time when they said you guys can transfer anywhere. He stood in the gap and just said, ‘I’m going to stand for these kids and stand for Penn State.’ His first year at Penn State, he lost to Ohio and Virginia. Former players were decrying the decision. History forgets a lot of that. He stood there as a man of character and it was never about him. I remember texting him when I was at the Giants. I was so appreciative. He was so confident and it was about so much more than him. Those kids at Penn State, after the scandal happened, they needed a coach, they needed an adult. And they needed someone to stand for them and advocate for them. I’ll always remember him as the guy who stood there with those kids during the most trying of times. 

Here, obviously something happened and things are going to hang over you. Two things: this football program needs a coach and coaches who are going to stand up for them. Secondly, I want to lead these kids, who could’ve transferred to a different school this year. For them to come back here in uncertain times, they will be remembered by the entire Baylor family. Baylor has stood here before the state of Texas was even formed. It will be here for a long time. It hit a rough time, but this is what Baylor stands for. It stands for excellence and leadership and service and a spiritual mission. As a Penn Stater, I will always be grateful to Bill O’Brien for showing me the way. 

MM: What did you do at Temple to create a safe environment? 

MR: Being at Temple after everything that happened at Penn State, all those protocols were on the front of everyone’s brains. All of those systems and protocols, such as the Clery Act. We were all on the front lines. I walked into a place at Temple that had some issues on campus, with regards to athletics. We had to rebuild some trust and redefine what was acceptable.

This isn’t only a football issue, this is a university-wide issue. What’s the best way to handle things? Being at Temple, we were really on the forefront. 

Some mistakes in life you can come back from. Harming someone else is something different. With my own team, we’re never going to harm someone that’s weaker than us. That’s sort of where my mind has always drawn the line. They have put some protocols in place where it is sort of taken out of our hands. 

MM: A lot of folks were concerned about your lack of Texas ties. Did that worry you? 

MR: I talked to some coaches I trust in Texas and other places and asked them if I could have success there. They told me the high school coaches want someone who cares about players, about Texas high schools, and football, in general. That’s exactly who I am. I want this to be an access point to every coach in Texas where you can come to our practices.

MM: What are the biggest differences between high school football in Pennsylvania and Texas?

MR: I think protecting the game. When you go to a high school game in Texas, the participation is so much greater. The coaching staff are educators, teachers. They’ve protected the game. When you go to Pennsylvania, there’s one coach for each school. With budget cuts, there are no longer coaches in some schools.

The kids here are so developed, so well-coached in things like seven on seven. Throwing the football is so advanced. But even more important, it’s how important football is here. They don’t have a strong federation up there like they have here. Football has come under attack.

MM: Baylor’s known for its dynamic offense. What sort of changes will you make? 

MR: I’ve heard folks say I’m a defensive guy. Well, I’ve been a quarterbacks coach, tight ends, offensive line. There has to be a vision for everything. Defense and offense, it’s not a system. You take advantage of talent. You have to figure out what your O-line can do and what your quarterback can do. We ran an I-formation at Temple because we had an NFL fullback. 

We believe you protect the football, convert third downs, score touchdowns in the red zone, and out-rush the opponent. I hired Matt [Lubick] and Jeff Nixon to be co-coordinators. They’ve been in spread and pro-style offenses. At Temple, we were 40-50 percent three wides and four wides [with receivers]. Once we got a lead, we were gonna pound you. Why make the defense go play when you have three-touchdown lead? 

To win a championship, though, you have to play great defense. Look at Alabama and Clemson. Both those teams have great defenses. I want to be the NFL team of the Big 12. I want every GM, every scout, every head coach, I want them to all know that if you come to Baylor and get a Baylor Bear, he’s going to be ready for the NFL. They will have been in a system where they had to do a lot of things and it will help them easily transition into NFL. And I’m not concerned with the total amount of players we put in the NFL. How many guys play six, seven, eight, nine years? You know you’ve prepared them when they play that long. 

MM: I see that stack of books. What are you reading? 

MR: I try to read a book a week. I don’t know that I always do it. I’ll read for twenty minutes while I’m on the StairMaster. The last books I’ve read are Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Lead . . . for God’s Sake! We were 3-3 this season [at Temple] and I re-read The Energy Bus. I either read psychological, spiritual, business, or football books. I liked The Inner Game of Tennis. And Win Forever by Pete Carroll is the greatest football book of all time. The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson is a life-changing book about progressive improvement. It’s really important for my players and my son, who is dyslexic, to see me read.  

MM: I’m told that Ping Pong will be a big part of the program?

MR: I love to play. We had four ping pong tables at Temple, and we’d take them on the road with us. 

In this day and age where most kids are using their thumbs for video games, ping pong really started to develop our players’ hand-eye coordination. And secondly, we developed real relationships. There’s a tendency with 110 guys to hang with your position players. But we’d have Wednesday night tournaments where our senior defensive end who’s going to be an NFL player is playing against a freshman walk-on. It gets people to turn their phones off, and there is no reset button.